By Kema Ogden

I believe in the importance of promoting the use of cannabis to ease pain and suffering. Cannabis is a proven alternative to addictive prescription pain drugs including opioids, which have reached epidemic proportions nationwide. It’s estimated that this past year alone, some 64,000 people in the United States have died from opioid overdoses. When you weigh the dangers of using opioids against taking cannabis products to reduce pain, it really is a no- brainer. Cannabis is a much safer and more effective way to manage pain.

Fortunately, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently resigned, just as the Justice Department seemed poised to step up efforts to enforce federal marijuana laws in states like Nevada where cannabis use is already legal. If such enforcement were carried out, it would be a blatant violation of state’s rights and a deterrent to the use of cannabis for its many proven health benefits.

Such enforcement would also be a waste of federal money. Enforcing marijuana laws costs the United States approximately $3.6 billion a year — and hasn’t stopped or decreased its availability or use.

Enforcing antiquated marijuana laws has also unfairly targeted people of color over the years. According to recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports and U.S. Census, arrest rates for minorities for marijuana possession from 2001 through 2010 saw a shocking increase: more than three times the rate for whites. Today, statistically, blacks in Nevada are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites. (Nationwide, the arrest data reveals a consistent trend as well: despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.)

According to the Americans for Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), marijuana arrests now account for more than half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 percent were for simply possessing marijuana.

As a minority woman who owns a business, I want to grow my business by hiring even more minority employees without fear that the federal government will arrest them for some trumped up charge in the useless War on Drugs, which has been deemed a complete failure.

Fortunately, we finally have some leadership on this issue. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) recently introduced the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, a bill modeled after California’s Proposition 64 aka the Marijuana Legalization Initiative. It would end the federal marijuana prohibition. I enthusiastically support this bill and all efforts aimed at decriminalization.

As states and cities debate how to reconcile the sad legacy of the War on Drugs with the new realities of legalization, municipalities including San Francisco, San Diego and Alameda County have announced that they will clear thousands of criminal records involving marijuana-related crimes. Others should follow suit.

For my part — because health and wellness are passions of mine, and because of my views on this topic — I recently accepted a seat on the board of directors of the Doctors for Cannabis Regulation (DFCR), the first and only national physicians organization dedicated to the legalization, taxation and effective regulation of cannabis for adult use in the United States — and around the world. The organization believes that cannabis prohibition has utterly failed and that any misuse of cannabis should be treated as a health issue rather than a criminal one.

Through DFCR, I look forward to advocating for more inclusive regulatory policy in the cannabis industry, as well as promoting more minority ownership on both the dispensary and cultivation sides of the cannabis business. In the the long run, I believe much-needed policy changes will be a tremendous asset to the state of Nevada. I encourage all like-minded Nevadans to contact their congressional representatives and urge them to support the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017 and all similar measures.

Kema Ogden is a Las Vegas-based business entrepreneur, philanthropist and the executive director of two Southern Nevada 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations. She is also Nevada’s first female minority owner of a cannabis dispensary — and co-owner of Top Notch THC, a cannabis dispensary and cultivation business.

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